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A California Conservation Corps firefighter passes by a stand of burning timber on the August Complex near Covelo on the Mendocino National Forest, Wednesday, September 16, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

California’s largest ever wildfire hits 1 million acres, foretells fiery future

UPDATE: The August Complex fire, burning since Aug. 16 across seven Northern California counties, has grown to 1,002,097 acres, making it California’s first 1 million-acre wildfire. This story published Sept. 20 looked at the toll on several Mendocino County communities that have been in the fire’s path over two months.

COVELO — Longtime forester Chris Baldo pressed his rough palms onto the ash-covered bark of a massive white oak, a casualty of a wildland blaze that consumed much of the Mendocino National Forest and could become California’s first million-acre fire.

Chris Baldo walks a portion of the Mendocino National Forest that was torched by the August Complex, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020.  Back Butte watershed is in the background. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Chris Baldo walks a portion of the Mendocino National Forest that was torched by the August Complex, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. Back Butte watershed is in the background. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

Estimated at 500 years old, this monumental oak, its trunk nearly 7 feet in diameter, had long ago cracked open near the base, a wound healed into a smooth and contoured cavity.

It persevered through countless fires over the centuries, even as Douglas fir bullied its way into this Northern California wilderness, crowding into meadows, saplings littering the forest floor and adding dangerous fuel for fires.

Baldo paused just a moment to lean in to this tree, a marvel he would visit in what he called his cathedral grove on his 200 acres adjacent to federal forestland high above the Black Butte River about 15 miles east of Covelo, a remote outpost in Mendocino County.

Chris Baldo takes a stern look at the charred remains of the Mendocino National Forest, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Chris Baldo takes a stern look at the charred remains of the Mendocino National Forest, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

“Older trees that grew up surviving fire after fire after fire can’t survive the temperatures and the type of fires we’re having now,” said Baldo, who stayed despite evacuation orders and kept fire away from three cabins. “You can read the paper and see changes in the icebergs, for the polar bears. But if you pay attention right here, you can see it.”

The August Complex fire started with the only way nature causes fire: lightning. But its growth from 37 separate wilderness fires into a massive inferno larger than the state of Rhode Island is covered in human fingerprints.

Chris Baldo surveys the destruction of a 500-year-old white oak on his his property adjacent to the Mendocino National Forest, torched by the August Complex, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Chris Baldo surveys the destruction of a 500-year-old white oak on his his property adjacent to the Mendocino National Forest, torched by the August Complex, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

Generations of putting out fires instead of letting them burn. The Earth’s rising temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions. Drier winters. The end of traditional Native American prescribed burning to remove undergrowth. The incursion of nonnative species. These have all set the stage for this massive fire to burn.

“You can read the paper and see changes in the icebergs, for the polar bears. But if you pay attention right here, you can see it.” ― Chris Baldo

Even if the 833,967-acre August Complex fire doesn’t quite hit the one million acres mark, it has already unseated the 459,123-acre Mendocino Complex fire that ignited in July 2018 as California’s largest wildfire.

Chris Baldo and his dog Heisler take a cruise through Baldo's burned property adjacent to the Mendocino National Forest, torched by the August Complex, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. . (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Chris Baldo and his dog Heisler take a cruise through Baldo's burned property adjacent to the Mendocino National Forest, torched by the August Complex, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. . (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

Together, these fires will have blackened most of the canyons and valleys that comprise the Mendocino National Forest, a 913,306-acre refuge for wildlife and playground for those who love California’s rugged wildlands.

Days into the lighting-strike fires started mid-August, Mendocino National Forest Superintendent Ann Carlson said she was filled with intense dread. She didn’t have enough fire resources to attack all of the fires in the forest because of the sheer number of blazes being fought across Northern California, including the Walbridge fire in Sonoma County and the Hennessey fire that started in Napa County.

Texas firefighters, front, and firefighters with the Camarillo Conservation Corps meet to discuss firing operations on Indian Dick Road above Covelo, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 in the Mendocino National Forest's August Complex. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Texas firefighters, front, and firefighters with the Camarillo Conservation Corps meet to discuss firing operations on Indian Dick Road above Covelo, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 in the Mendocino National Forest's August Complex. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

Her division had spent the last two years felling trees, shoring up roads and had just reopened the remaining campgrounds from the areas in the 2018 fire scar. She knew how blazes of the past years moved so quickly through the dry and dense forests and recalled wondering, “Where is this going to end?“

Five weeks later, the western edge of the August Complex still burns mostly uncontrolled at 10% containment Saturday, with interior spotting, uphill runs and torching, though officials dare to hope they have turned a corner with the help of moderate weather and successful defensive burning by fire crews. Carlson has allowed herself to start thinking ahead to how the fire may give the forest service a head start in clearing the type of vegetation that is more fire fuel than ecological benefit.

A  fire captain with the California Conservation Corps uses a flare gun to ignite vegetation along Indian Dick road near Covelo, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 to help stop the advance of the August Complex fire.   (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
A fire captain with the California Conservation Corps uses a flare gun to ignite vegetation along Indian Dick road near Covelo, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 to help stop the advance of the August Complex fire. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

Some of the fire will have caused what’s called stand replacement, killing large, older trees and decimating the underbrush, creating great risk for mudslides and large-scale erosion. But other parts of the blaze had the type of low intensity, brush-clearing flames that can revitalize a forest.

“Disturbance is part of the natural environment,” said Carlson, who early in her career studied the aftermath of the 1980 volcanic eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State. “If we’re going to create areas with reduced fuels, the fire started it for us. We need to create a strategy to maintain it.”

Camarillo California Conservation Corps firefighters keep an eye on unburned vegetation as the west end of the August Complex burns to Indian Dick Road above Covelo, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 in the Mendocino National Forest. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Camarillo California Conservation Corps firefighters keep an eye on unburned vegetation as the west end of the August Complex burns to Indian Dick Road above Covelo, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 in the Mendocino National Forest. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

If there’s one common refrain in California’s forested communities hit by fire, it is that the vegetation fuels for fire must be reduced. The chamise, the saplings, the undergrowth that crowds into what would otherwise be oak-studded meadows or spacious groves with towering trees.

“We’re playing catch-up because for over 100 years we did pretty much nothing but suppress fires, cut and replant,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, a San Rafael Democrat who has represented the North Coast in Congress since 2013. His district includes much of the August Complex’s fiery western front.

The deadly and destructive firestorm of October 2017 that destroyed more than 5,330 homes in Sonoma County and killed 24 people, helped spur Congress to address a longstanding problem: The U.S. Forest Service for years had been using up its fire prevention budget for firefighting before it got to the work of prescribed burns or underbrush clearing.

Kriss Carr of north Texas prepare to help backfire the August Complex above Covelo, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Kriss Carr of north Texas prepare to help backfire the August Complex above Covelo, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

Huffman said he hopes a law that dedicates separate funding streams for fire prevention and firefighting will result in firefighting projects getting done on a larger scale. The change, which came about after the 2017 wildfires, is crucial for California, where the federal government owns and is responsible for maintaining 57% of the state’s forest lands. Private property owners hold most of the rest.

“We know we need to do more and what we do matters,” Huffman said. “It’s going to take a few years to translate that into action on the ground.”

Dustin Gibbens of Windsor and Benny Loya look over their crop of cannabis above Covelo, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 that has been under constant threat of fire damage this summer. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Dustin Gibbens of Windsor and Benny Loya look over their crop of cannabis above Covelo, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 that has been under constant threat of fire damage this summer. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

Huffman also put responsibility for year after year of megafires on what he called a “convergence of risk” — the increasingly dense and dry forests, the aging and poorly maintained electrical grid blamed for many recent big fires and the rising number of people living in fire-prone forested areas.

Though it mostly impacts wildlands, this fire has destroyed historical cabins, burned through sacred sites for Indigenous people and menaced remote forested communities along the vast 100-mile fire front from southern Trinity County to the Lake Pillsbury subdivision in rural Lake County.

“We know we need to do more and what we do matters.” ― Rep. Jared Huffman

Covelo is in the middle of the fire’s western front, with fingers encroaching on three sides of the Round Valley, a remote community of cattle rangers, cannabis growers and the Round Valley Indian Tribes. The place is hemmed in by mountains on all sides.

Soledad Espinoza of Ventura County, and a firefighter with the Camarillo California Conservation Corps, clears a fire break above Covelo, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 on the August Complex in the Mendocino National Forest. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Soledad Espinoza of Ventura County, and a firefighter with the Camarillo California Conservation Corps, clears a fire break above Covelo, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 on the August Complex in the Mendocino National Forest. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

Smoke from this fire and several other major blazes created such a thick shroud across Northern California Sept. 8 that people woke up to a day without dawn. The eerie dark and reddish sky unnerved people in downtown San Francisco and thrust California’s fire apocalypse into national headlines.

Hardly mentioned were towns like Attenpom, Alderoint, Elk Creek and Covelo along the fire’s fiercest edges.

The blaze burned into the Black Butte drainage, an important cultural wildland with old trading foot paths, sacred sites and the historic Keller homestead firefighters wrapped in fire-resistant foil in a fruitless attempt to gird against flames.

Round Valley radio station volunteer Lew Chichester — who wouldn’t call himself a longtime resident because he only arrived there in the 1970s — recalled seeing people using flashlights that dark morning. The streetlights turned on. Chichester had no idea that pall had fallen upon a vast portion of the state, but worried what it signaled for Covelo, a town of ranchers, cannabis growers and tribal members. They have one cell tower and one paved option, Highway 162, for getting in or out.

Steep hills and rugged terrain underline the complexity of cutting firebreaks to help control the advance of flames on the August Complex, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 near Covelo.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Steep hills and rugged terrain underline the complexity of cutting firebreaks to help control the advance of flames on the August Complex, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 near Covelo. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall grew up in Covelo. His father was a Cal Fire firefighter and two brothers joined the fire service and are involved in managing the firefight.

The vastness of the fire was hard to describe, as was the huge portion of the county threatened by its potential to push further west into populated areas, Kendall said. Areas others perceive as remote wildlands in counties like Mendocino are home to tens of thousands of people.

“It’s wrapping your mind around the faces of those people you’ve known your whole life living in those out-of-the-way places,” Kendall said.

Fire engulfs brush as a Texas firefighter  cools down the fire edge to keep it from spotting over the August Complex fire line, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 in the Mendocino National Forest.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Fire engulfs brush as a Texas firefighter cools down the fire edge to keep it from spotting over the August Complex fire line, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 in the Mendocino National Forest. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

There is evidence those who live in even the most remote parts of California’s wildland urban interface are preparing in new ways for the eventuality of more frequent and bigger fires.

Among Covelo’s longtime residents are a group of relative newcomers, cannabis farmers who have populated the hills for decades. The black market stronghold in the community has partly given way to entrepreneurs in the legal marketplace in recent years.

They, too, have watched the fires grow in intensity and begun to notice the aging ranks of volunteer firefighters.

Cannabis businessman Dustin Gibbens of Windsor and his partners are cultivating 2 acres of cannabis above the valley floor for their company, Family First Farms. They are planning to send their employees to firefighting academies. They have 70 head of cattle and seven horses that help keep the grasses low.

In this inland valley, a fire doesn’t need to be massive to pose a threat to livelihood.

Cannabis at a garden above Covelo collects ash from the Mendocino Complex fire, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
Cannabis at a garden above Covelo collects ash from the Mendocino Complex fire, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

A blaze that started with a car fire in the valley floor July 31 grew quickly in the punishing heat, burning up into the hills and destroying between 10% and 20% of their crop. Other growers showed up with water trucks even before the volunteer firefighters arrived. They and Cal Fire quickly gained control of the fire with the aid of helicopters and air tankers mustered to attack that fire.

Gibbens primarily runs their Santa Rosa-based manufacturing company, 965 Solutions, and two of his partners, Mike Adams and Benny Loya, manage the farm. They helped other growers and neighbors defend their properties from another Mendocino County fire that started Aug. 18 and burned 820 acresover three days.

Family First Farms’ crop is covered in ash but they believe they will be able to clean the buds by blowing the ash away with fans.

Fires are part of life in rural California, though Gibbens couldn’t have predicted that a wildland blaze in October 2017 would grow into the devastating Tubbs fire that destroyed his Coffey Park home and neighborhood in Santa Rosa.

Gibbens was home alone when he awoke about 4:30 a.m. Oct. 9 and saw his neighborhood in flames.

“I had five minutes to get out,” he said.

That harrowing escape and year after year of fires has not caused Gibbens to pull up stakes and leave. He and his girlfriend moved to Windsor and Gibbens said he’s getting used to “traveling a little lighter.” He and his partners have built the likelihood of fires into their business plans.

“Fire is always going to be a factor here in California,” Gibbens said.

The south end of the August Complex on the Mendocino National Forest creeps in to the Lake Pillsbury basin, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020 as a meteorite breaks overhead.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
The south end of the August Complex on the Mendocino National Forest creeps in to the Lake Pillsbury basin, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020 as a meteorite breaks overhead. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

Fire officials expect the August Complex fire to continue burning in its interior areas until significant rainfall, which in many ways is also part of the natural course of fire in California’s forests.

The fire has “restarted the clock” for the Mendocino National Forest, said Greg Giusti, advisor emeritus for the UC Cooperative Extension's forests and wildlands ecology division.

Giusti said an older, more fire-resistant forest has about 50 trees per acre, but the Mendocino National Forest has become a crowded, younger forest with roughly 20 times that many trees per acre.

He, too, sees some upsides to the fire. The charred and barren landscape will leave more water for creeks and underground water supply, although it also creates an immediate threat of erosion. While many birds will leave without enough canopy in which to nest, woodpeckers will feast on the wood-boring beetles that thrive on dead trees. As seedlings begin to sprout, quail and deer will thrive.

Pine cones spared by the fire will fall to the ground and sprout new growth.

The challenge will be to shepherd the forest toward a healthy future.

“You can’t say it’s all good or all bad,” Giusti said. “In fact my standard line is in nature, the concept of good and bad does not exist. In nature there are simply consequences.”

Baldo has been working on fire defense on his 200 acres near a geological feature called Nebo Rock at one western edge of the Mendocino National Forest almost every weekend for two decades.

A stand of timber burns, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 as part of the August Complex on the Mendocino National Forest near Covelo. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
A stand of timber burns, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020 as part of the August Complex on the Mendocino National Forest near Covelo. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

He jokes that his friends used to tease him for spending so much time limbing trees, eradicating chemise and cutting fire trails throughout his property, calling him “Chicken Little” after the children’s fable of a young chick who claimed the sky was falling after an acorn hits his head.

Despite his preparations, Baldo felt vanquished after the firefight on his land.

Sept. 8 when the smoke from this wildfire choked out the sun, the blaze began backing down the upper ridge and burning onto Baldo’s property. Three of his four water systems failed, plastic piping melted by the heat, but he could still pump water from a pond.

“You can’t say it’s all good or all bad. In fact my standard line is in nature, the concept of good and bad does not exist. In nature there are simply consequences.” ― UC Cooperative Extension’s Greg Giusti

With sprinklers, shovels and his D4 caterpillar bulldozer, Baldo, 69, rushed from one cabin to the other to put out hot spots. Firebreaks he had already dug in a large perimeter slowed the encroaching flames.

When he was nearly exhausted, help arrived. Two hotshot firefighters appeared out of nowhere through the smoke, driving up in a pickup with little else than a kerosene drip torch.

They made quick work of Baldo’s carefully maintained forest, setting fire to any remaining undergrowth and creating a burn scar to stop the fire’s advance.

Baldo marveled at how much work these two firefighters with few tools could do and, when they left, how confident they were in Baldo’s ability to defend his cabins on his own.

“I remember when they left, the boss said ’You are set up for success,’ ” Baldo recalled. “I looked around and there were flames everywhere.”

California Conservation Corps firefighters take a breather before setting a backfire to help control the edge of the Mendocino National Forest's August Complex, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020
California Conservation Corps firefighters take a breather before setting a backfire to help control the edge of the Mendocino National Forest's August Complex, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2020

One week after this firefight, Baldo still will not leave his property, keeping careful watch for hot spots, removing fallen trees blocking roads and communing with those big trees now lost.

Baldo studied forestry at UC Berkeley in the 1970s and co-founded the Willits Redwood Co. sawmill, which initially processed thinnings salvaged as a byproduct of forest management activities but now buys high-quality redwood from scattered private property owners.

Baldo put it as a failure of his generation — “us 70 somethings” — for not taking a forward-looking approach to the forests that would have protected the old-growth forests, historic homesteads and communities from mega fires.

Baldo said the formula is clear: prescriptive fires, reducing undergrowth and taking bold steps as a country toward slowing the pace of climate change.

“We have all the money, all the college degrees, all the power in Sacramento and Washington, and we can't agree on what is reality and how to make decisions, however difficult, that benefit future generations and the planet,“ Baldo said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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